“Pete’s Dragon” (2016): Taking Lemons and Making a Lemon Tree

The original 1977 Pete’s Dragon is a curiosity. Made a decade after Walt Disney’s passing, it was one of many live action/animated films that tried to recreate the magic of something like Mary Poppins. It has an extremely mixed bag song wise, a terrible lead performer and a cool looking Don Bluth animated dragon that’s only in 30 of the 128 minute runtime. In other words, it’s flawed enough to warrant a modern remake, given the relatable element of ‘A Boy And His ______’ can transcend generation gaps. So, in their quest to keep every property they have thriving, Disney has brought us a new Pete’s Dragon by Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery, approaching things from a smaller indie perspective and giving us a much more emotionally sincere, simple story of a young boy coming to society and earning itself on the pedestal of remakes that outdo their originals.

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Walt Disney Pictures

The major core of this is the relationship between the titular characters of Pete and his dragon Elliot. While just sort of… spoken and sung at us in the original Pete’s Dragon, Lowery really focuses on the inherent tragedy of a boy raised out in the woods being found by civilization. The opening doesn’t skimp on firmly establishing this in dark yet appropriate terms. Pete’s parents are killed in a car crash and he would likely die if not for this mysterious dragon’s presence. The stakes are so dire and this dragon is explained just enough as a local legend come true. It’s a compact straightforward narrative that allows more focus on these two being together. Lately, there’s been a renewed interest in attempting to reapply the classic Steven Spielberg style of childhood innocence and supernatural forces. Here, Lowerey’s direction doesn’t feel like typical nostalgia so much as taking that mission statement and applying it to a modern style. Some of the later Spielberg issues rear their head, like The BFG‘s oppressive score that pops up here a bit less commonly. Yet, Lowerey is at his best when taking a simple approach of understanding between Elliot and Pete, allowing the two characters to create a dynamic that’s the backbone of it all.

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Walt Disney Pictures

Everything fits into the conflict of Pete leaving the unconventional dwelling that’s kept him alive and loving conventional home. Oakes Fegley gives the right mixture of childlike curiosity and fractured being that would befit a child raised out of society. His moments of hesitated interest are motivated by a true lack of understanding of the world around him. Pete’s bewildered, but convinced enough by adult characters who are willing to talk with him on his level. Elliot manages to have just as much subtlety despite being a massive CG creature. Much like Pete here and the original animated Elliot, this dragon speaks in small vocalizations made by prolific voice actor John Kassir. They speak far less loudly than the facial features of Elliot, which are perfectly contorted to get everything Elliot’s thinking at any given moment visually. He’s one of the better realized CG creatures in recent memory, displaying every emotion like a big dog with true emotional resonance that gives us an honest connection between boy and beast.

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Walt Disney Pictures

A connection that is far more crucial once Pete’s Dragon moves into the rustic suburbs of the early 80s in the Northeastern United States. Pete’s wandering hopes of getting back to the woods are constantly at odds with forest ranger Bryce Dallas Howard trying to make sense of all of this, which allows for a gradual build to Pete finding comfort in human civilization. It’s an earned inclosure mainly because the chemistry between Fegley & Howard is so strong. She doesn’t talk down to him as a feral child but tries to relate to him on a primal emotional level that works here. He also builds a phenomenal chemistry with Oona Laurence, the young daughter who forms a believable friendship that keeps Pete grounded to a traditional child perspective. Both manage show Pete how fulfilling a normal life can be as well as Elliot when he comes across them in an emotionally crippling scene. The male characters don’t do this as much, with Wes Bentley occasionally being thrown into the mix with less flat wooden behavior than usual, Robert Redford coming in and out of the story for mainly thematic drive reasons and Karl Urban serving as a slightly more fleshed out version of the hunter from Bambi to come after our characters as an antagonist. Still, they all show some sort of compassion and resilience that made me care for them. Pete’s Dragon even managed to do what I thought would be impossible: make me give some semblance of a crap for Wes Bentley when he’s in peril.

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Walt Disney Pictures

The summer 2016 movie season has been filled with unremarkable mediocrity. Films that don’t have faith in characters interacting together so much as they do in throwing everything at the audience they visually can. Jumbling up the editing for the sake of confusing people into tolerating the lack of anything that’s going on. So, it’s honestly refreshing to get a Pete’s Dragon that actually has an economic sense of storytelling, one that’s able to balance building characters with an actual structure. That seems like a case of praising competence, but even observed for its own merits Pete’s Dragon takes the basic concept that the original failed to make interesting and realizes its full potential. Pete’s Dragon has a wonderful simplicity that doesn’t hamper the main relationship and does a solid job of appealing to a larger family audience. Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it can’t speak to us on a larger level.Pete’s Dragon is the exact type of remake we need more of… but no, let’s redo Ben-Hur again.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Dragon Fur Hairs

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